The lamrim, the gradual path to enlightenment, gives a concise and comprehensive picture of the Buddhist path to awakening. This outline of the lamrim meditations is intended to be used to supplement the audio recordings on Guided Meditations on the Stages of the Path. The outline can also be used on its own as a study guide.
As we go deeper into Dharma practice, we see that while preparing for our future lives is good, it does not free us from cyclic existence altogether. For this reason, we contemplate the various disadvantages and sufferings of cyclic existence and its causes in order to generate the determination to be free from it and to attain liberation (nirvana).
The path of the middle level practitioner
The eight sufferings of human beings
To get a better sense of the unsatisfactory conditions of our present situation, consider the difficulties we experience as human beings:
- Birth. Is being in the womb and then going through the birth process comfortable, or is it confusing?
- Aging. Imagine yourself as an old person. How do you feel about the inevitable decline of your physical and mental abilities?
- Sickness. How does it feel to get sick without choice or control?
- Death. Is death something you look forward to?
- Being separated from what we like. Think about the suffering involved when this has happened to you.
- Meeting with what we don’t like. How does it feel when problems come even though you don’t want them?
- Not obtaining the things we like even though we try so hard to get them. Make examples of this from your life. Do you like this situation?
- Having a body and mind under the control of disturbing attitudes and karma. Reflect that the very nature of your present body and mind is unsatisfactory because you have very little control over them. For example, you cannot stop your body from aging and dying, and it is difficult to deal with strong negative emotions and to concentrate your mind during meditation.
Conclusion: Develop the determination to free yourself from cyclic existence and to practice the path to do so. While this aspiration is sometimes translated as “renunciation” (of suffering and its causes), it actually is having compassion for ourselves and wanting ourselves to have lasting, Dharma happiness.
The six sufferings of cyclic existence
To develop a strong determination to be free from cyclic existence and to attain liberation, contemplate the unsatisfactory conditions of cyclic existence by making many examples from your life:
- There is no certainty, security, or stability in our lives. For example, we try to be financially secure or secure in our relationships, but this constantly eludes us.
- We are never satisfied with what we have, what we do, or who we are. We always want more and better. Dissatisfaction often pervades our lives.
- We die repeatedly, in one life after another.
- We take rebirth repeatedly, without choice.
- We change status—from exalted to humble—repeatedly. Sometimes we are rich, other times poor. Sometimes we are respected, other times people are condescending towards us.
- We undergo suffering alone. No one else can experience it for us.
Conclusion: Wishing yourself to be free from cyclic existence, generate the determination to attain liberation (nirvana).
The causes of cyclic existence
Our unsatisfactory experience of being in cyclic existence has causes—the disturbing attitudes and negative emotions in our mind. Make examples of the following attitudes and emotions in your life. For each one, consider:
- How does it cause you problems now by unrealistically interpreting events in your life?
- How does it bring about future unhappiness by making you create the cause, negative karma?
- What antidotes can you apply when it arises in your mind?
- Which one of these is the strongest for you? Have an especially strong aspiration to be aware of and to counteract this one.
- Attachment: exaggerating or projecting good qualities and then clinging to the object.
- Anger: exaggerating or projecting bad qualities and then wishing to harm or get away from what makes us miserable.
- Pride: an inflated sense of self that makes us feel we are either the best or the worst of all.
- Ignorance: a lack of clarity regarding the nature of things and active misconceptions about the nature of reality and about karma and its effects.
- Deluded doubt: doubt tending towards incorrect conclusions.
- Distorted views: wrong conceptions.
- View of the transitory collection: the conception of an inherent “I” or “mine” (grasping at the self as inherently existent)
- View holding to an extreme: eternalism (grasping at inherent existence) or nihilism (believing that nothing at all exists)
- Wrong view: denying the existence of cause and effect, rebirth, enlightenment, and the Three Jewels
- Holding wrong views as supreme: thinking the above are the best views
- Holding bad ethics and modes of conduct as supreme: thinking that unethical actions are ethical and that incorrect practices are the path to liberation
Conclusion: Seeing the damage these disturbing attitudes and negative emotions cause in your life, develop the determination to be aware of their arising and to learn and practice the antidotes to them.
Factors that stimulate the arising of disturbing attitudes and negative emotions
Making examples from your life, understand how the following factors stimulate the arising of negative emotions and misconceptions:
- The predispositions of the disturbing attitudes. Do you have the seed or potential to generate disturbing attitudes and negative emotions even though they may not be manifest in your mind now?
- Contact with the object. What objects, people, or situations trigger the arising of disturbing attitudes and negative emotions in you? How can you be more aware when you encounter these people, situations, or objects?
- Detrimental influences such as wrong friends. How much does peer pressure or what other people think of you influence your behavior? Are you strongly influenced by friends or relatives who act unethically or who distract you from the spiritual path?
- Verbal stimuli—media, books, TV, Internet, radio, magazines, etc. How much do the media shape what you believe and your self-image? How much time do you spend listening to, watching, or reading the media? How can you have a healthy and reasonable relationship with the media so that they don’t control your life and your thoughts?
- Habit. What emotional habits or patterns do you have?
- Inappropriate attention. Do you pay attention to negative aspects of situations? Do you have many biases? Are you quick to jump to conclusions or be judgmental? What steps can you take to remedy these tendencies?
Conclusion: Understanding the disadvantages of the disturbing attitudes, determine to abandon them. Think of how you can avoid the factors causing their arising and determine to change your lifestyle accordingly.
The Paths that Cease Disturbing Attitudes, Negative Emotions, and Karma
The Three Higher Trainings—in ethics, meditative stabilization, and wisdom—are the paths to cease our unsatisfactory conditions and to attain a state of lasting peace and happiness. For each of the higher trainings, reflect:
- What advantages accrue now and in the future by practicing this training?
- How can you implement this training in your daily life? Have some specific ideas and make a firm determination to do this.
- How does each higher training build upon the previous one? Why are they practiced in this order?
Conclusion: Aspire to practice and actualize the Three Higher Trainings.
Although we practice the paths in common with the initial and middle level practitioners, we do not stop with the attainment of their objectives, of upper rebirth and liberation, respectively. Rather, seeing that all sentient beings, who have all been kind to us in our many lives, are in the same situation, we work to generate bodhicitta—the altruistic intention to attain enlightenment in order to benefit all sentient beings most effectively. This is the motivation of the higher level practitioner. The foundation for bodhicitta is equanimity, an attitude that is free from bias, aversion, clinging attachment, and apathy towards others and that cares about them equally.
The Path of the Higher Level Practitioner
- Visualize a friend, a person you have difficulty with, and a stranger. Ask yourself, “Why do I feel attachment for my friend?” Listen to the reasons your mind gives. Then ask, “Why do I have aversion toward the difficult person?” and do the same. Finally, explore, “Why am I apathetic toward the stranger?”
- What word do you keep hearing in all these reasons? On what basis does your mind consider someone good, bad, or neutral; friend, disagreeable person, or stranger? Is it realistic to judge others based on how they relate to “ME”? Are others really good, bad, or neutral from their own side, or is it your mind that is categorizing them as such? How would others appear to you if you stopped discriminating them based on your own selfish opinions, needs, and wants?
- The relationships of friend, difficult person, and stranger change constantly. One person can be all three within a short period of time. If someone hit you yesterday and praises you today and another person praised you yesterday and hits you today, which is your friend? Which is the difficult person?
Conclusion: Acknowledging that your attitudes create the seemingly solid relationships of friend, difficult person, and stranger, let go of the attachment, anger, and apathy towards them. Let yourself feel an openhearted concern for all beings.
Before we can feel genuine love and compassion for others, we must see them as lovable. Seeing them as our parents or kind caregivers and remembering their kindness to us, both when they are our parents or caregivers and when they are not, enables us to have a positive view of them.
All Sentient Beings Have Been Our Parents, Their Kindness, and Repaying Their Kindness
- Since beginningless time, we have taken one rebirth after the other, in many types of bodies in all the realms of cyclic existence. As human beings, animals, and hungry ghosts, we have had mothers who have given birth to us. Since our previous lives are infinite, all sentient beings, at one time or another, have been our mothers and fathers. Seeing that others are not just who they appear to be today, try to get a sense of your beginningless contact with them.
- When they have been our parents, each sentient being has been kind to us, loving us as parents love their children. As an example of the kindness of parents, remember the kindness that the parents of your present life have shown you. If it is easier for you to think of the kindness of another relative, friend, or caregiver, do that. As you consider each kindness, let yourself feel gratitude towards the person. If, in the process of recalling childhood events, painful memories arise, remember that your parents are ordinary sentient beings who did their best, given their abilities and the situation they found themselves in.
- Our mother happily bore the discomfort of being pregnant and giving birth to us.
- Our parents took care of us when we were infants and toddlers and could not care for ourselves. They protected us from danger and got up in the middle of the night to feed us even when they were tired.
- They taught us how to speak and how to take care of our basic needs. We learned so many small, yet essential, skills from them, such as how to tie our shoes, how to cook, how to clean up after ourselves, and so forth.
- As children we predominantly thought of ourselves only, and our parents had to teach us manners, social skills, and how to get along with others.
- They gave us an education.
- They worked hard to get the finances to give us a place to live, toys, and other enjoyments.
- Since all sentient beings have been our parents, they too have shown us similar kindness again and again.
- Remembering their kindness and knowing that you have been the recipient of so much kindness from them throughout your beginningless lifetimes, let a wish to repay their kindness arise naturally in your heart. Let your mind rest in these feelings.
The Kindness of Others
To develop an awareness of your interconnectedness with all others and the sense of being the recipient of much kindness from them, contemplate:
- The help we’ve received from friends. This includes the support, encouragement, gifts, practical help, and so forth that we’ve received from them. Do not think of the friends in a way that increases attachment to them. Instead, recognize their help as acts of human kindness and feel grateful.
- The benefit we’ve received from parents, relatives, and teachers. Reflect on the care they gave us when we were young, protecting us from danger and giving us an education. The fact that we can speak comes from the efforts of those who cared for us when we were young, including our teachers. All talents, abilities, and skills we have now are due to the people who taught and trained us. Even when we didn’t want to learn and were unruly, they continued trying to help us learn.
- The help we’ve received from strangers. The buildings we use, clothes we wear, food we eat, and roads we drive on were all made by people we don’t know. Without their effort—the contribution they make to society by whatever work they do—we wouldn’t be able to survive.
- The benefit we’ve received from people we don’t get along with and from people who have harmed us. These people show us what we need to work on and point out our weaknesses so that we can improve. They give us the chance to develop patience, tolerance, and compassion, qualities that are essential for progressing along the path.
Conclusion: Recognize that you’ve received incalculable benefit and help from others throughout your lifetime. Let yourself experience the care, kindness, and love that others have shown you. Let a sense of gratitude arise and generate the wish to be kind to them in return.
Equalizing Self and Others
To feel that all sentient beings—friends, strangers, difficult people, self, and others—are equally worthy of respect and help and are equally valuable, contemplate the following nine points:
- All beings want to be happy and to avoid pain as intensely as we do. Try to look at each individual you see with this thought in mind.
- Ten patients may suffer from different illness, but all want to be cured. Similarly, sentient beings have different problems, but all equally want to be free from them. There is no reason for us to be partial, thinking some beings are more important than others.
- Ten beggars may need different things, but all want to be happy. Similarly, each sentient being may want different things, but all want to be happy. It would be unfair for us to have a discriminatory attitude, helping some and ignoring others.
Conclusion: All beings, including yourself, equally want to be happy and avoid suffering. Think that you must work to eliminate the suffering of all equally and help all equally. Although you cannot do this externally, you can hold this attitude internally.
- All beings have helped us so much. The mere fact that we’ve been able to stay alive since birth is due to the efforts of others. Reflect on the help you have received throughout your lifetime.
- Even if some people have harmed us, the benefit we receive from them far outweighs this.
- Holding grudges against those who have harmed us is counterproductive.
Conclusion: Let the wish to help others arise in your heart. Let go of any wish for revenge or retaliation for past harms.
- The relationships of friend, disagreeable person, and stranger aren’t fixed; they change easily.
- The Buddha sees no inherent friend, difficult person, or stranger, so do they exist?
- Self and other is not an inherent distinction between people. It is purely nominal and dependent, like this side of the valley and the other side.
Conclusion: There is no difference on a conventional or an ultimate level between yourself and others. Feeling this in your heart, give up any attitude of partiality that favors yourself or your dear ones and open your heart to respect and cherish all beings. Although you may not act the same with everyone—you must still accord with certain social roles and take others’ abilities into consideration—in your heart you can still wish them well equally.
Having an equal attitude to all beings and seeing them as lovable and worthy of happiness, we now focus on uprooting the principal impediment to altruism, our self-centered attitude. In addition, we develop the mind that cherishes others and, based on that, love and compassion.
The Disadvantages of Self-Centeredness
We are not our self-centered attitude, which is an attitude clouding the pure nature of our minds. We and our selfishness are not one and the same, and thus self-preoccupation can be eliminated from our mindstreams. By reflecting on experiences in your life, you can see how your self-centered attitude has caused you harm and thus wish to overcome it. Our self-centeredness:
- Makes us act in ways that harm others.
- Causes us to act in ways we later regret and is the root of self-hatred.
- Makes us overly sensitive and easily offended.
- Is the basis for all fear.
- Breeds dissatisfaction. It’s impossible to satisfy the bottomless pit of our desires.
- Underlies all conflict between individuals, small groups, and nations.
- Motivates us to do harmful actions in a confused attempt to be happy. We thus create negative karma, bringing undesirable situations upon ourselves in the future. Our current problems are results of our past selfish actions.
- Impedes our spiritual progress and prevents enlightenment.
Conclusion: See self-centeredness as your real enemy and determine to let go of it.
The Advantages of Cherishing Others
Thinking of examples from your own and others’ lives, reflect on the benefit of cherishing others that accrues to both yourself and others:
- Other sentient beings are happy.
- Our lives become meaningful.
- We get out of our self-centered ways that make us so miserable.
- We can be happy anywhere, anytime.
- Our relationships go better and harmony in society increases.
- We create great positive potential, thus creating the cause for good rebirths and making it easier for us to gain realizations of the path.
- It’s the root of all happiness of self and others, now and in the future.
Conclusion: Resolve to care for others with genuine affection. Recognize the difference between sincerely caring for others and from caring for them out of guilt, obligation, fear, or codependency.
Love is the wish for sentient beings, including yourself, to have happiness and its causes.
- Reflect on: What is happiness? Think of the short-term benefits of temporal happiness (the happiness experienced in cyclic existence) such as that received from having wealth, friends, reputation, health, good rebirths, and so forth. Think of the long-term benefits of happiness received from practicing the Dharma: mental happiness and peace of mind, liberation, and enlightenment.
- Begin by wishing yourself to have these two types of happiness, not in a selfish way, but because you respect and care for yourself as one of many sentient beings. Imagine yourself being happy in these ways.
- Wish that your friends and dear ones have these two kinds of happiness. Think, feel, and imagine, “May my friends and all those who have been kind to me have happiness and its causes. May they be free of suffering, confusion, and fear. May they have calm, peaceful, and fulfilled hearts. May they be liberated from all the miseries of cyclic existence. May they attain the bliss of enlightenment.” For this and each of the following groups of people, think of specific individuals and generate these thoughts and feelings towards them. Then generalize to the entire group.
- Generate the same loving feeling towards those who are strangers.
- Spread your love to those who have harmed you or with whom you don’t get along. Recognize that they do what you find objectionable because they are experiencing pain or confusion. How wonderful it would be if they were free from those.
- Generate love for all sentient beings. Think of those beings in all realms of existence—hell beings, hungry ghosts, animals, human beings, demi-gods, and gods. Generate love towards arhats and bodhisattvas as well.
Conclusion: Let your mind rest single-pointedly in this feeling of love for all beings.
Compassion is the wish for sentient beings, including yourself, to be free from suffering and its causes.
- Remember a time when your mind was filled with fear and aggression. Imagine it becoming your entire reality, so that it manifests as your body and environment—the hell realms. Think that others are experiencing that right now and develop compassion for them, wishing them to be free from that suffering.
- Remember a time when craving and dissatisfaction overwhelmed your mind such that you ran everywhere searching for happiness, but, unable to enjoy what you had, wanted more. Imagine it becoming so intense that it becomes your body and environment—the hungry ghost realm. Think that others are experiencing that right now and develop compassion for them, wishing them to be free from that suffering.
- Remember a time when your mind was clouded with deep ignorance and confusion such that you could not think clearly or use your wisdom. Imagine it becoming so intense that it becomes your body and environment—the animal realm. Think that others are experiencing that right now and develop compassion for them, wishing them to be free from that suffering.
- Reflect on the eight sufferings of human beings that you contemplated previously. Think that others are experiencing those right now and develop compassion for them, wishing them to be free from that suffering.
- Remember a time when your mind was so saturated with pleasure that you became completely self-absorbed. Distracted by the pleasure, you could not focus your mind on anything meaningful and could not open your heart to others. Imagine it becoming so intense that it becomes your body and environment—the celestial realms. Think that others are experiencing that right now and develop compassion for them, wishing them to be free from that suffering.
Conclusion: Rest your mind single-pointedly in feeling compassion for all beings.
Exchanging self and others
Exchanging self and others does not mean “I become you and you become me.” It means changing who is important and cherished from self to others. To do this, reflect:
- Suffering is suffering. No matter whose it is—mine or others’—it is to be removed.
- Although we think of our body as “mine,” in fact it is not. Our genes came from the sperm and egg of our parents, and the food that made the fertilized egg grow into an adult came from other beings. It is only due to the force of familiarity that we grasp this body as “mine,” and therefore as important and worthy of comfort and happiness. Similarly, through familiarity, we can come to consider others’ happiness as important and worthy as we now consider our own.
Conclusion: Exchange ourselves and others, wishing that others be happy in the same way that you now wish yourself to be happy.
Taking and giving
In our current self-centered confusion, whenever we are able to, we take any goodness and happiness for ourselves and give any difficulties and discomfort to others. Seeing the disadvantages of self-preoccupation and the advantages of cherishing others, and exchanging your wish for happiness from self to others, now cultivate strong compassion wishing to take their problems and give them your happiness.
- Imagine in front of you a person or group of people who are experiencing difficulties in some way. Think, “How wonderful it would be if I could experience those problems instead of them.” Imagine taking on their problems and confusion by inhaling them in the form of black smoke.
- The smoke turns into a thunderbolt or bomb, which completely obliterates the black lump of selfish- ness and ignorance at your heart.
- Feel the open space, the lack of wrong conception about self and others. Rest in that spaciousness.
- In this space, imagine a white light—the nature of your love—that radiates to all beings. Imagine you multiply and transform your body, possessions, and positive potential into whatever others need. With delight, give them to those people.
- Imagine them being satisfied and happy. Think that they have all the circumstances conducive to attaining enlightenment. Rejoice that you’ve been able to bring this about.
At the beginning, do this meditation slowly and use specific people or groups. As you become more familiar with it, enlarge the group with whom you do the taking and giving meditation, until it becomes all sentient beings of the six realms.
Conclusion: Feel you are strong enough to take on others’ misery and give them your happiness. Be glad that you can imagine doing this and pray to be able to actually do this.
The great resolve and the altruistic intention (bodhicitta)
- To generate the great resolve, make a strong determination to take the responsibility yourself to liberate all sentient beings from cyclic existence and bring them to Buddhahood. That is, pledge to make the goals of your love and compassion a reality.
- To generate the altruistic intention, contemplate the fact that you will be best equipped to work for the benefit of others when your own compassion, wisdom, and skill are fully developed. Then aspire to attain full enlightenment—the state in which all defilements are totally eradicated and all good qualities are fully developed—in order to be able to best benefit others.
Conclusion: Feel joyful that you have generated bodhicitta (the altruistic intention).